A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

The publication of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Inquiry Report has provoked a tsunami of reactions, mostly damning the administration of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, others questioning the integrity of the inquiry and the three judges, others downplaying its conclusions as part of a denial strategy, and some others judging it as an opportunity to change course.

To me, the Inquiry Report provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore trust in public institutions, which is sorely needed more than at any other point in time.

It is good that ex-Prime Minister Muscat has accepted the conclusions of the Inquiry, though his “serious reservations” about the Judges departing from the terms of reference is nothing but a squib aimed at somehow denuding the report of its legitimacy. Brilliant for the faithful, but otherwise totally forgettable.

Prime Minister Robert Abela was tempestuous in apologising to the Caruana Galizia family and to the public for “a dark chapter in Malta’s history” and for “the State’s shortcomings”. He was equally forceful in stating that the report “merits mature analysis beyond partisan arguments”.

It may well be that Malta’s reputation is in tatters, as ex-Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi claimed. That too is a catchphrase likely to endure him to the Government’s critics. But hardly a stepping stone in the long road to restoring the country’s tainted reputation.

The Inquiry Report provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore trust in public institutions.

A statesman-like comment came from President George Vella, when he said that “this report can, and must serve as the point of departure for a national healing process”, starting from repair of the trauma the journalist’s brutal assassination inflicted on society and extending to the implementation of as many of the Inquiry’s recommendations as possible. It is a sentiment shared by many of the NGOs who rushed to have their say about the report.

It is aeons away from MEP David Casa’s incendiary comments that Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela “commissioned” Caruana Galizia’s murder and allowed “them” (whoever they are) to murder her. The sacred fact that the Inquiry concluded that the State had no hand in her assassination, though it was responsible, is neither here nor there to the MEP.

Let us not mince words. The Report is clear that a number of people captured the State’s institutions to promote their personal and financial interests illicitly, that they were aided and abetted by deviant public officials sworn to respect the law of the land, that a state of impunity encouraged people and entities to ride roughshod over the public good, and that collusion between public officials and businessmen encouraged corruption.

The litany of wrong is too painful to digest. But digest it we must, and the process should start with the PL using its electoral muscle to rein in the hot-heads who see the Report as simply a political tool wielded by what they derisively call The Three Wise Men to undermine the Labour Government.

Instead, the proper response should be the pursuit of what I would call “responsive governance”, which is key to the restoration of trust in government and the State institutions. Restoring trust is primordial.  

The high approval rating enjoyed by Prime Minister Abela presents a rare opportunity to restore trust in government.  He should not miss the opportunity. Malta has missed many opportunities to implement fundamental economic, political and administrative reforms in the past, and let me be clear, that includes the period before 2013. Abela has promised he will act.

History shows that governance in Malta has been characterised by excessive politics, patronage, and family. To that explosive mix “business” was added in 2013. The four ingredients contribute to what Michael Johnston, Professor of Political Science, has called “Syndromes of Corruption” in his 2005 book.

The proper response should be the pursuit of what I would call “responsive governance”.

Our society has become dominated by oligarchs and clans, feeding on nepotism, debts of gratitude, and kinship which have contributed to the development of even larger partisan politics than we have been used to in the past.

Many years back, Rance P.L. Lee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote about bureaucratic corruption being due to the problems of incongruence between legal codes and folk norms. He was writing about 19th century China, but he could well have been writing today about Malta.

Corruption becomes endemic and it develops into a “culture” of corruption. As Prof Y.J. Kim of the University of Wisconsin says, “the culture of corruption indicates a structure where corruption is a normal daily occurrence in the form of bribery, malfeasance, nepotism and cronyism.” Well, well. Lee and Kim would have had a field day writing about that culture in Malta.

What the Government needs to acknowledge is that the administration of government differs, and must necessarily differ, from the activities of the business world. The two have different objects to pursue, different criteria to measure success, different necessary conditions under which they may conduct their affairs, and different instruments which to employ. The two must work together, but not be in bed together. 

There are certain crucial values which must underlie public administration, such as traditional standards of probity and integrity which should not be relaxed in order to secure economy and efficiency, as the British House of Commons said in a 1994 Report. I would further suggest that integrity is doing the right thing even if no one is looking, or even if others are not doing the right thing.

As I see it, any reform must have four broad planks: reforming institutions, processes, procedures; reforming mindsets and behaviour; reforming leadership and political will; and engaging citizens. These four areas are united by a common vision: the attainment of good governance and the restoration of trust in government.

I would further add that this is not a “pick and choose” menu. All too often, my experience tells me, the government starts with good intentions and then proceeds to undermine the reform process by ditching the holistic approach in favour of a narrower agenda. This undermining process is very much encouraged by bureaucrats who do not want their age-long power diminished by politicians, be they Labour or Nationalist.

Prime Minister Abela has made it clear that lessons must be drawn and reforms must continue with greater resolve. This is certainly not a job exclusively for the government, but for all of civil society, the social partners, and the political establishment. Working together will be a huge challenge, but it is incumbent on all of them to do so.

Tell the truth, I am rather agnostic, if not downright sceptic about the odds. I do not doubt the Prime Minister’s good intentions, but we have had too many false promises and dawns since Independence to give me a better feeling. So, one can only reserve his judgment.

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